BY DESIGN

Time was that Sunkist oranges, Dole pineapples and Chiquita bananas were the only branded items in the produce aisle. But those days are gone. Today the old timers share space with a plethora of branded upstarts ranging from Foxy lettuce to Frieda's gourmet sun-dried tomatoes.In the go-go world of high-stakes product marketing, produce branding is hot. And for good reason. Despite the difficulties

Time was that Sunkist oranges, Dole pineapples and Chiquita bananas were the only branded items in the produce aisle. But those days are gone. Today the old timers share space with a plethora of branded upstarts ranging from Foxy lettuce to Frieda's gourmet sun-dried tomatoes.

In the go-go world of high-stakes product marketing, produce branding is hot. And for good reason. Despite the difficulties of branding commodities, more and more suppliers are finding that branding is the way to go to gain higher retail margins, to build equity and to bolster consumer confidence. While brands have always existed on the retail level, national branding on the consumer level is a fairly new trend. It was Dole Fresh Vegetables of Salinas, Calif., that helped set the state for things to come when it announced in late 1990 that it would brand nearly 100% of the commodities it shipped by branding entire product lines. Lettuce, salad mix, cut vegetables, bananas -- the pineapple king has engaged in a branding bonanza. The big players are not the only ones who have recognized that "if you brand it, they will come." Many of the little guys are also pursuing a branding strategy. Arrow Farms, for instance, a small company based in Chelsea, Mass., is branding its potatoes, onions and oranges in an effort to grow. Suppliers who are thinking about branding a commodity can take a page from the book of Driscoll Strawberry Associates of Watsonville, Calif. The company, which has been growing and shipping strawberries and raspberries for half a century, decided in 1990 to launch branded berries for consumers after years of success with the trade. For a company to be successful at branding, it must first do its homework. We helped Driscoll conduct a thorough analysis of the marketplace, its competition, its company and product strengths and weaknesses, and consumer needs, wants and perceptions. As a result of this work, we set out to truly "brand" the Driscoll's brand through:

· Nomenclature: A new, more succinct name was recommended to and adopted by the company -- Driscoll's.

· Positioning: In order to better communicate attributes, one condensed positioning statement was developed: "Driscoll's -- the Finest Berries in the World."

· Trade Dress: Acting on feedback from consumer focus groups, an innovative plastic container was created that allows consumers to see all the berries while at the same time it provides better protection for the fruit.

· Brand Communications: Consumer awareness would be reinforced by making every crate and container carry its new name and brand identity. Unlike other categories, the produce department frequently uses the corrugated shipping cartons as display cases, creating a unique opportunity to further advertise your brand.

In some ways, branding produce can pose greater challenges than branding other types of goods. Given the idiosyncrasies of nature, a supplier cannot guarantee the quality of the product. Whereas an innovative box can make a mediocre brand of wheat flakes seem terrific, a banana peel is a banana peel. What you see is what you get -- and no matter how highly regarded a supplier's name, if a product doesn't look good, consumers won't buy it.

Elinor Selame is past president of Package Design Council International and president of BrandEquity International, a brand identity and package design consulting firm based in Newton, Mass.